Your web browser is outdated and may be insecure

The RCN recommends using an updated browser such as Microsoft Edge or Google Chrome

“I’m a frontline nurse, I know what it’s like on the ground. I see, hear, and feel everything our members are experiencing,” says Denise Kelly, the newly elected Chair of the RCN’s Trade Union Committee.

Denise comes to the role having served as Vice Chair since January 2021. The committee is responsible for developing the RCN’s trade union functions and activities, ensuring the organisation is modern and progressive.

“I feel very humbled and privileged to be elected,” says Denise. “Being Vice Chair built that sense of purpose and unity within me, and over the past year-and-a-half, I’ve built strong relationships and personally got to know every single member of the committee, and it’s lovely to know that they have trust and confidence in me. They know that collectively, we will strategise and deliver the very best on behalf of members.”

Denise has a number of priorities for the committee, including the RCN’s pay campaign for both NHS and independent sector nursing staff, alongside staffing for safe and effective care. “Both are very much interlinked,” Denise says.

“We need proper terms and conditions to enable staff to deliver the care patients need.”

Making moves

Denise will now also have a seat on the NHS Staff Council and wants to positively influence the review of terms and conditions, such as time off in lieu, job evaluations, flexible working and career progression, as well as undertake a nationwide review of nursing job descriptions.

“Members deserve to feel respected, protected, valued and appreciated for the vital work they do, and must be remunerated commensurate with a safety critical profession,” she says.

Denise has been working hard in her role as Vice Chair to achieve equity between the trade union and professional sides of the RCN.

“We’re doing a lot of collaborative working now, with a focused, united front,” says Denise. “It shows members that when you sign up, you’re getting both elements – the best of both worlds.”

On the picket line

While there was once a perception that the RCN would never take industrial action, the historic strike in Northern Ireland three years ago showed there is appetite to take a stand, Denise believes.

“People realised we’re strong as nursing staff, and as a trade union. We can amplify our voice – and win, as our strike action showed. But it's all about the members,” she says. “It’s critical that members know they will be consulted every step of the way, and their vote is their voice.”

Denise describes herself as a “real grassroots trade unionist”, and this is best reflected by her role in the Northern Ireland strike action in 2019. She was due to fly to Iceland for a much-anticipated family holiday − but then events took a very different turn. “Instead, I was on a picket line alongside my colleagues in Northern Ireland, making a stand on behalf of nursing and patient care,” she recalls.

“Luckily, my family knew how important it was to me, and how much time and effort I’d invested into organising our action to make it successful.”

Industrial action a very powerful tool to engage, educate and empower

As Chair of the Northern Ireland Northern branch at the time, Denise had also led the local strike committee, helping co-ordinate three days of action over the staffing crisis and pay, which ended when Northern Ireland achieved pay parity with the rest of the UK.

“It meant a lot of negotiating and giving assurances to patients and staff that safety wouldn’t be compromised,” she says. “Industrial action really is the last resort when all other options are exhausted. It’s a very powerful tool to engage, educate and empower.”

Looking back, she feels the Northern Ireland campaign was her finest achievement to date.

Denise says: “It showed nursing staff could stand up for themselves and patients. It's changed history, there's no doubt about that.”

Words by Bethan Rees and Lynne Pearce. Images by Aaron McCracken.

Read next